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Gears of War 3 multiplayer preview: In the Trenches

John Gaudiosi

While you will have to wait an extra five months to get the full version of Gears of War 3 at retail, Epic Games is offering up a concession in the form of a free multiplayer public beta. You'll be able to check out the new multiplayer well before the game ships, although Epic has not released the exact date yet. And the extra development time will allow the developer to take full advantage of feedback from players and implement that information into the final version of the game.

"A big part of what we're trying to do is embrace the different play styles that people have, so this public beta is going to be a very big chance for us to throw it out in the wild and see how well we've met the needs of what players want in order to use different tactics," said Lee Perry, senior gameplay designer, Epic Games.

Epic held an open house, showing off its newly expanded digs in Cary, North Carolina and offering a first taste and hands-on gameplay with a trio of multiplayer maps – Checkout, Trenches and Overpass. Each map showcases a different aspect of gameplay strategy: Checkout is set inside a large market; Trenches is a map focused on trench warfare that has a large hill at its central point that leads to a very powerful sniper position; Overpass is a section of street with buildings on one side and a bus stop on the other with a large overpass dividing the two sides of the road.

Gallery: Gears of War 3 (10/07/10) | 8 Photos

Jim Brown, lead level designer on Gears of War 3, said Checkout focuses on close-quarters combat and offers an array of hidden interactive elements that come into play. Trenches gives the tactical advantage to whichever team can take and hold the hill. Adding to the challenge is a randomly generated sandstorm that creates a window for the opposing team to sneak up and overtake the position.

"One of the cool things about Overpass is this huge dynamic component where the entire world shifts and starts sinking underground in real-time," said Brown. "While this doesn't impact gameplay, by the end of the map the teams are playing inside an underground cavern. The effect is cool because you're fighting while watching the map transform before your eyes."

There are the hardcore ranked guys who can go on and play together, but we're also catering to gamers who just want to jump into the first room that has an opening for a player.- lead level designer Jim Brown

Epic has been developing new gameplay modes that take advantage of these types of maps. Its newest incarnation is Capture the Leader, which adds a twist to the popular Capture the Flag mode by sending a team after the opposition's leader. The leader has some special abilities to offset the hunt and ensure players aren't focusing just on defensive positioning and finding a place to hide. King of the Hill returns as a mixture of game modes Annex and King of the Hill, in which a ring forms and players pile in and try to take the hill. While War Zone and Execution will remain in the new game unchanged, Epic's serving up a new variation aimed at the more casual gamer.

"We've found that a new user coming in for the first time generally gets shot in one of these modes and ends up watching other people play for five to ten minutes," explained Brown. "Not surprisingly, they decide that's not what they want to do, so they don't ever come back and play. Team Deathmatch is our answer to this problem. It's very much the essence of the way we think Gears was meant to be played. It's classic Team Deathmatch, where teams re-spawn and go out and shoot one another, but we've done our best to add a Gears twist to it. Once a front is established, you will spawn in groups so that you can maintain a front and struggle to keep it over the course of a match. We also cap the number of re-spawns in this mode to build up to a dramatic ending, where you might have one versus four players in an intense final battle."

Gears of War 3 also introduces new weapons to the mix, adding a very specific range in which these guns can be used most effectively. Lee explained that the sawed-off shotgun is good for super close-range and melee combat, while the retro lancer bridges the gap between close-range shotgun play and rifle play. Snipers will want to utilize the hammer burst, which has a great zoom for long-range shots.

Gallery: Gears of War 3 (multiplayer maps) | 17 Photos

Gears of War 3 is following in the footsteps of big multiplayer games by supporting dedicated servers. Brown said this will provide a more level playing field for gamers and guarantee that the rocky start that Gears of War 2 got off to won't be repeated. In addition, dedicated servers will help ensure better matchmaking times and play into the new party system that Epic is introducing, which encourages friends to congregate online and stay connected even when they're not all playing in the same game mode.

"This all ties in really well with our social matches, which we introduced in a recent Gears of War 2 title update but will be fully supported in Gears of War 3," said Brown. "There are the hardcore ranked guys who can go on and play together, but we're also catering to gamers who just want to jump into the first room that has an opening for a player. It's about get in the game and play."

Gears of War 3 will also introduce a more robust, role-playing game element when it comes to the online experience. Lee said the goal is to leverage the different online game modes so that something a player earns or unlocks in one mode encourages you to go try out something else. The team is also diving in and putting in very complex ribbons, medals, achievements, challenges, and structure in play.

"We have a large selection of multiplayer characters that you can unlock, including Cole in his thrashball uniform," said Lee. "We noticed that all kinds of people from different demographics were picking characters that they could kind relate to. So rather than having unlocking systems involving a shoulder pad or a cowboy hat or we went with a system where you're unlocking an entire variant of a character. It's more like a fighting game where you unlock different styles of a character."

Brown and Lee concluded that Gears of War 3 is playing solidly and the extra development time will be spent on polishing the game and listening to what gamers want through the public beta.

John Gaudiosi has been covering the video game industry for almost 20 years and currently is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of video game syndication service

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